The Word in Peace, Fourth Sunday of Lent: Seeing makes me blind

1 Samuel 16:1, 6-7, 10-13; Psalm 23:1-6; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41

“I came into this world for judgment, so that those who do not see might see, and those who do see might become blind.” – John 9:39

One of my go-to movies when I need a tear-jerker is A Family Thing, a 1996 tale in which Robert Duvall plays Earl Pilcher, an Arkansas good ole’ boy whose mother pens a deathbed confessional letter telling him that she is not his real mother. What’s more, Earl learns that biological mother, Willa Mae, who died giving birth to him, was black, and he also has a black half-brother in Chicago. Earl reluctantly travels to meet that brother, Ray Murdock, played by James Earl Jones. Embittered by the loss of his mother so many years before, on top of being a black man who had escaped from the segregated South, Ray is not too thrilled about the news, nor is he willing to have a relationship with Earl.

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Aunt T.

Irma P. Hall provides the prophetic voice in this film as Aunt T., a feisty old blind woman who is the sister of Earl and Ray’s mother. As Ray and his son Virgil want nothing more than to send Earl back to Arkansas, Aunt T. pointedly insists that both men accept Earl into the family, skin color be damned. Before her climactic recollection of Earl’s birth, Aunt T. takes on racism with a simple yet memorable line:

“I don’t know how he look, I can’t see him like you can, and I don’t need to. I don’t have the blessing of being able to separate people by looking at them any more.”

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Racism is still with us; it just has a different look

The city of Sanford, Fla. had already contributed a paragraph to the narrative of race relations in America decades before Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman were born. Jackie Robinson, in the midst of his long and difficult path to breaking baseball’s color barrier, was booted from the ballpark in Sanford for the offense of being a black man in a white stadium. As a local historian puts it:

“While playing in Sanford, Florida, Robinson singled, stole second base, then scored a hit run only to find the Sheriff waiting on him in the dugout with handcuffs. He was removed from the game.”

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Jackie Robinson (LOOK Magazine)

67 years later, Sanford is a much different place. Formerly a steamboat port dependent on the citrus trade, it is now a cosmopolitan bedroom community for Orlando, which sits 20 miles to the south. Sanford is not quite the Southern hamlet it once was, as U.S. 17/92 now bypasses the quaint downtown area to get tourists to the Central Florida Zoo and Botanical Gardens or to the southern terminus of Amtrak’s Auto Train. Interstate 4 carries thousands of daily commuters within a half-mile of the Twin Lakes gated community where the Martin shooting took place.

I do not know whether or not George Zimmerman suspected, accosted and shot Trayvon Martin because he was black. The words that pundits have spoken, written and yelled before, during and after the trial have been based on speculation. Zimmerman himself is the only one alive who really knows what happened. Those who were convinced of his guilt before the trial are angry that he was acquitted. Those who were convinced of his innocence before the trial feel vindicated.

Regardless of Zimmerman’s guilt or innocence, the trial has exposed what blacks in America have known all this time: racism is alive and well in this country. We cannot dance around the issue any more.

Americans make the mistake of identifying racism as a personality trait, creating an imaginary dichotomy between those who are “racist” and those who are “not racist.” Being called a racist angers people because they take it mean that they are being lumped together with Nazis, Klan members and other undesirables. However, identifying racism as a trait not only creates labels (which is kind of how we got to racism in the first place), but it also misses the point. Missing from the racism debate is the very Christian notion that it is not “racists” who are bad, but racist thoughts and actions.

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